My Dog Won’t Take Cookies, Part 1

As promised on Monday, this week we’re looking at some more nuts-and-bolts stuff. This is probably revisiting familiar ground for most of you. Still, I like to write about the “I wish I’d known that” stuff sometimes.

So, let’s start with the thing that frustrated me the most training Silas, namely “Why won’t my dog just take the damned cookie?”

It turns out that this, too, depends on patience and seeing things from your dog’s perspective.

The number one reason a dog will refuse a training treat is stress. Think carefully about what you’re asking of your dog. If your dog is too overwhelmed to eat, do everything in your power to change that situation. If you’re too close to a scary object, back up. If the environment is too chaotic, find a quieter place. If your dog needs a minute to settle down, give him that minute. Once your dog is comfortable, you can try again. Not eating is an extremely important signal, especially if you have a dog who normally loves treats.

Also, consider the value you’re offering. How good would the salary need to be for you to work on someone else’s clogged toilet? Would you happily do that for minimum wage? Yeah, I didn’t think so. If you’re asking your dog to do something really hard, your pay had better be commensurate with the job. Some dogs love food so much that they’ll do anything for a piece of kibble. Some dogs, not so much. Most dogs will vary their preference based on environment, since environment alone can make an easy behavior into a hard one. (On the other side, some working dogs love their work so much that offering payment is kind of an insult, and their trainers have challenges coming up with ways to train new working behaviors.)

Think about these two things in conjunction with each other whenever you run into the dreaded cookie rejection: is the job absolutely too hard, or are the wages just too low?. You might clean that toilet for the right price, but you couldn’t walk outside and pick up your car, no matter what I offered to pay.

For some dogs and for some situations, a food “wage” will never be the thing, so tomorrow I’ll be posting a list of alternative rewards. In the meantime, what’s your dog’s going rate? Is your dog happy to work for a kibble, or are you over here on the “smells like liver” bench?

16 thoughts on “My Dog Won’t Take Cookies, Part 1

  1. These are great points! I wish I had known them when I started off with Pyrrha. She was so scared of everything in the beginning that I thought she wasn’t food motivated. Turned out she was in such a state of fear that she couldn’t accept treats at any time — but now? Little lady will do just about anything for food, even put her head in a strange man’s lap. I like your analogy of the wages being too low; a really helpful perspective.


    1. The not-eating is such a useful piece of data. Frustrating in the moment, but so really important.

      The fact that she’s willing to eat now should tell you how far you’ve come. Good job!


  2. Blueberry would always drop or refuse the treats I gave her when I first brought her home. I think she was just still trying to figure things out. Since she has relaxed – she is extremely treat motivated. She will only do something if she knows a treat is involved. I struggled for a while over the fact that she wouldn’t get in the car (once she was comfortable and loved car rides) without me throwing a treat in first. But I finally decided that if she were an elephant I needed to get from point A to point B – which was the easiest, less stressful way for both of us? Of course, the treat method.

    When I volunteered at an animal shelter – I had a hard time getting most of the dogs to take treats from me – even delicious, homemade ones. I finally realized they were just too stressed in that particular environment to care about food. Human interaction was what they craved.


    1. LOL. I feel you. When Silas was a baby he wanted to eat rocks, so I would trade him a cookie for the rock. Now that he’s going-on-three, when he want a cookie he’ll go outside and get a rock. Trading is still better than eating, I guess.


    1. Olives! Silas is a picky eater no matter what, plus his diet-approved treats are really expensive. That means we don’t do as much training with food as some people do.


  3. This is such a good lesson. I remember the first time I fostered a dog who couldn’t take food. I was a little slow to figure out just how frightened she was.

    Creating distance from whatever is frightening a dog is the only reward they want at that point.


    1. I should edit my follow-up post to include that–what a good reminder. It was a huge revelation for me, even though it shouldn’t have been, to see that in Grisha Stewart’s BAT training.


  4. SUCH an important post and something no one told me when I started with Lucas! It took a long time until he would take food and then, as you pointed out, it was only super high value food. One thing that I emphasize is that it does not matter WHAT that food is. We tried everything until we hit on the winner… squeeze cheese, which is nothing but a pile of chemicals, and we’ve gotten a lot of flak for it. People get very judgey when you purchase a pile of cheese-in-a-can! Recently at the vet, the tech said, “Do you know how much sodium is in that?” I said, “Nope, and I don’t care because he’s not biting you or any of the dogs in the lobby!”


    1. You know what the behaviorist handed me to teach Silas some functional leash-walking skills?

      A can of squeeze cheese.

      She went to vet school–she knows what’s important.

      (Silas, for the record, thought squeeze cheese was gross, but loved her hypoallergenic veterinary treats. She said those treats were so universally disliked that they were about to stop buying them.)


  5. Great tips. 🙂 The two ground-base points of leverage that dog owners must know…
    Lancer’s reward is specifically playing fetch with a tennis ball, which makes training much more difficult. I can’t just go tossing a tennis ball down the street, everywhere I go. Lancer is only food-motivated in the house, but once outside, he doesn’t care a bit… even more things like hot dog, he completely zones out on.



  6. “Is the job absolutely too hard, or are the wages just too low?”
    This is a GREAT way to think about it! And not just for taking a cookie, but for any non-response to a cue, I think. I am totally going to remember this.


  7. Great point. When we first adopted Maggie at age 8, she wouldn’t even eat anything for 3 days…we even tried filet…nothing. She was so fearful she just couldn’t bring herself to put her head down into a bowl and eat. Slowly, we worked through it…and now I’m happy to say she is totally food motivated – I can get her to do most anything for a treat! But you have to be patient and work at their level.


  8. My dogs will mostly work for food. Delilah would work for a rock if she thought it was food. Sampson not so much, if he doesn’t want to do something, he won’t. I think he would work for rubbies though. 🙂


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